Waste Not, Want Not: How Ordinary Home Cooks Can Help Prevent World Hunger

Together a family of four pitches 1,656 pounds of food–the amount pictured here in the Food Waste display © AMNH/D. Finnin**

This is a blog about everyday meal making, so you’re likely wondering why an article on world hunger?  Because I have met and talked to most of the people on our newsletter list and I know they, like most people, really, have a deep concern for the plight of others.  Usually, it feels like there’s nothing we can do about big problems.  Happily, however, everyday meal making provides an opportunity to change the world.  Three times a day, seven days a week, we have a chance to make food choices that, e.g., lead to less food wasted so more food is available for those in need.  This Waste Not, Want Not series hopes to build awareness of these opportunities so we can exercise our power to effect change.

Those who have taken one of our healthy meal making classes will chuckle at the heading for this article.  For those who haven’t, I am known for hoarding the bits and scraps from our cooking adventures that most people would toss:

  • Are we making a salad with kale leaves?  Save the stems for making a soup!
  • Is the saute pan covered with the bits and pieces from browning chicken?  Deglaze it and save the juices for cooking carrots!
  • Broccoli on the menu?  Peel the tough stems and boil for a lovely puree!

While I admit to being a (lighthearted, I hope) miser, there is a heartbreakingly serious side to this waste not, want not quirk of mine:  Hunger.  It is fast increasing, even in our own country, the wealthiest in the world.  National Geographic recently profiled what hunger looks like in America:

“[T]he number of people going hungry has grown dramatically in the U.S., increasing to 48 million by 2012–a fivefold jump since the late 1960s, including an increase of 57 percent since the late 1990s. Privately run programs like food pantries and soup kitchens have mushroomed too. In 1980 there were a few hundred emergency food programs across the country; today there are 50,000. Finding food has become a central worry for millions of Americans. One in six reports running out of food at least once a year. In many European countries, by contrast, the number is closer to one in 20.”

AND YET. . . we waste 30% of our food supply!  Picture the groceries you buy each week.  Now imagine tossing a third of them in the trash can.  Wow.

In a previous post, I described the potato blight display at the Global Kitchen exhibit in Denver.  In addition to that display the exhibit featured another illustrating our food waste problem.

  • In the developing world, it explained, food waste occurs for lack of things like storage, refrigeration, distribution and technology.  E.g., there is a big crop of mangoes, but it can’t be refrigerated to spread out the harvest, can’t be widely distributed to more people in need and can’t be dried, canned or otherwise processed for year-round eating.
  • In the developed world, on the other hand, food waste occurs just because we are thoughtless and picky.  To begin with, each year every man, woman and child in the United States throws out 414 pounds of food at home, in stores and restaurants.  But even more food is lost on farms and in processing and transportation.  E.g., huge amounts of produce is discarded on farms and at stores simply because it isn’t quite pretty or fresh enough for the American consumer or has a few blemishes.**

Wow, again.

Certainly the food industry bears some responsibility for our quick-to-toss mentality.  It happily stokes our fears around food contamination:  A little wilting on the lettuce–pitch it and go buy more!  Asparagus been in the frig for six days–must be bad so go buy more!  Apple have a brown spot–get rid of it and go buy more!

Note the “go buy more” theme?  It is to the industry’s advantage to take advantage of food safety concerns.  Pitching a tomato with a bad spot means you run to the store for a replacement.  Ka-ching!

There is no question that food safety is important, but for goodness sake:

  • Old does not automatically equal inedible.  In asparagus season, it is sometimes 7 or 10 days before I can get to my last bunch and it is absolutely fine.
  • Wilted does not automatically equal inedible.  Our Monroe Organics CSA lettuce is often wilted after a long day from harvest through delivery and pick up, but as Jacquie Monroe always reminds us, dunk it in a bowl of cold water for a couple hours.  Presto it becomes just like new!
  • And mold does not automatically signify that an entire produce item has gone bad.  In tomato season,  have plenty of tomatoes that start to turn, but I cut off all of the bad spot (plus a margin of good tomato) and what’s left is fine.

Many of us were raised in the post WWII, “starving child in China” era.  Parents cajoled us to eat our peas because there were “so many starving children in China.”  I don’t know whether our parents truly cared about the kids in China or just needed a heavy moral stick to make us eat nasty canned peas.  At any rate, it wasn’t long before we wised up to the absurdity of it all.  How in the world could eating nasty canned peas in America save some kid in China?

So we proceeded to toss out the kid in China nonsense.  But we didn’t stop there.  As each ensuing decade brought an ever-increasing abundance of food, we continued pitching, ultimately abandoning centuries-old traditions of gratefully treasuring and carefully husbanding food.  In place of those traditions, we giddily created into a cool new credo that took food for granted, gave little respect to the miracle of abundance and thoughtlessly, almost wantonly, wasted.

And now each of us wastes 414 pounds of food a year, while our neighbors go hungry.

Apple and plum sauce made from the abundance of fruit in our Boulder area this year.

So as Food Day approaches, when we can reflect on our food consumption, am I suggesting a return to the starving child in China mentality?  Lick my plate clean and starving kids somewhere are magically spared from hunger for a day?   That does sound silly, but what if:

  1. On a tangible level, what if the money saved by not wasting food is directed to hunger organizations (and while food banks are great, I favor organizations that address the root causes of hunger.)
  2. On a less tangible level, what if each of us, by paying a little more attention to revering and deeply appreciating food, contribute to a shift in the cultural norm.  Embarrassing waste is no longer accepted and food is treasured.  I’m guessing that kind of culture would more quickly find and effectively implement the solutions that already exist to end hunger.

If you have any more thoughts, please share in the comment box below.

Autumn, the season of harvest abundance, is a perfect time to begin building awareness around food waste and cultivating reverence for the food miracles nature bestows, day after day, season after season.

If you’re ready to take action, there are many ways to avoid food waste.

  • Wondering what to have for dinner?  Instead of running to the store for something, go foraging in your frig and find uses for a couple treasures in danger of going to waste.  The “Building Block Cooking Systems® shared in our healthy meal making classes make this kind of thing easy and fun to do.
  • These beans got forgotten in the garden, but not need to dump them; with the right kind of cooking, they can be turned into a delightful dish.

    Also included in our healthy meal making classes are lots of waste not, want not ideas, especially around using and enjoying leftovers.

  • Interestingly, joining a CSA helps prevent food waste as farmers can distribute food that is first quality in taste but not quite pretty enough for a farmers’ market or grocery store display.  Using this less-than-perfect produce keeps it from going to compost.
  • Check out Jen Hatmaker’s book, “7, an experimental mutiny against excess.”  It’s a “funny, raw, and not a guilt trip in the making” account of how she took 7 months, identified 7 areas of excess and made 7simple choices to fight back again the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism and overindulgence.  No surprise that food was one of her 7 target areas.  The surprise came in how humbly but hilariously she awakened–and awakens us–to the “filthy engine where ungratefulness and waste are standard protocol.”
  • Finally, check out the recipes in the previous posts for green beans past their prime and arugula (or any other vegetable) that’s so bitter you’re tempted to toss it.
Notes
The New Face of Hunger, Tracie McMillan,National Geographic, August 2014,
** From the Food: Our Global Kitchen exhibit; American Museum of Natural History

CSAs: Sign Up Now for Great Produce, Good Meat

Farmer's Market Photo

Hard to believe, but summer really is coming. Think ahead now and join a CSA to enjoy great summer produce at very reasonable prices.

Now is the time to sign up for a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture.

What  Join a CSA and you rise from passive grocery store consumer to farm member and supporter.  Every week you get a great box of produce (or meat) at amazingly reasonable prices.  Super fresh and super tasty.

Why  By the single step of joining a CSA you do all this:

  • get the best-tasting produce
  • at the most reasonable prices
  • that does the best job of supporting your and your family’s good health
  • while supporting sustainable growing practices
  • which protects the environment and preserves farmland
  • supports local farmers and local economy
  • and builds a stronger community.  What else can you do that is so beneficial?!!

Also be sure to see the previous post on the importance of clean meat–the kind you get direct from a farmer

When  CSAs deliver produce weekly, as it’s grown, so in Colorado that’s generally June through October.

Where  CSAs usually deliver to nearby towns and cities; it’s nice to find one that delivers to a fairly close location.

How Much  Pricing varies, depending upon farm and size.  Regardless, in my experience, the per pound price of produce was always very reasonable.  See the listing below for exact pricing.  And remember to start small.  There’s always next year to buy a bigger share as you get accustomed to this new way of “shopping.”

CSA Listing
The Daily Camera just printed a convenient list of CSAs that deliver in the Boulder area
Here is another good online source  (but note that Grant Family Farms is no longer in business.)

CSA Fair  Come Meet the Farmers!
Saturday March 15, 9:00am – Noon at Impact Hub Boulder, 1877 Broadway, Suite 100
Co-hosted by Local Food Shift and Boulder County Farmers’ Markets.  Connects people face-to-face with farmers, discovering all the ways to directly support them, learn about food production and enjoy local food–and join a CSA!   RSVP here.

Produce

We’ve been “trained” to seek out produce that looks good on the outside; CSA produce may not be as pretty on the outside, but it is stellar on the inside.

Think Ahead”  That’s the key to reaping the benefits of a CSA.  Remember we live in an instant food culture.  Anytime you get hungry, somebody has something to fill you up.  But you get what you pay for.  Little effort = little value.  Sadly we see the consequences of little effort all around us.

Why not try a new paradigm:  Think ahead.  You will be hungry this summer and autumn, just like you are every day.  That won’t change.  What can change is thinking ahead now and ordering a CSA.  Each week, you’ll have a magnificent box of produce and clean meat.  Then, when you’re hungry, you’ll fill yourself up with real food that nourishes and nurtures, i.e., what you really want to be eating.

Full Disclosure  CSAs offer great benefits, but as a member-supporter of the farm, you also get to intimately know and share some of the risks of farming.  In this way, you get very connected to the world outside our homes and offices where real food is produced.

Our farmers work tremendously hard and are so ingenious, but there are a lot of factors outside their control (e.g., floods, drought, shearing hailstorms, to name just a few from the last couple years.)  The fees paid by as a CSA member give farmers a cushion of security in this very risky environment.

Most often, those fees are repaid tenfold in the health-giving, delicious produce members receive.  But now and then, members take a hit alongside their farmers (albeit it a much, much smaller hit!)  Last year, for instance, our farm suffered a freak hailstorm in July.  In one hour, half of their crops were destroyed.  Talk about a force of nature!  But even though our shares were smaller, they were still very adequate, and I never felt “deprived.”

Members also help farmers by accepting and using up the less-than-perfect produce that is part and parcel of every harvest.  I was dismayed when the produce from my first CSA wasn’t nearly as nice as what my farmer sold at the Market.  Think about it, though:  for every perfect 7″ carrot, there are several 4-6″ carrots which taste just as good.  They may take a little more work, but by accepting them, they don’t go to waste and our farmer is further supported.

Finally, there is the dreaded, “What if I get 10 turnips” fear.  First, come to our healthy meal making classes with The New Kitchen Cooking School.  We learn systems for cooking a vegetable in multiple ways so you never feel over-dosed.  This summer we have three sessions all revolving around the summer vegetables you might receive in a CSA box.  Second, a CSA box always has plenty of variety to offset any vegetable you receive in plentitude.

Read more from Dan Moore’s volunteer website about why and how to join a CSA

Happy eating!

Even More About Getting More Beans into Your Diet

Affordability

A couple recent posts delved into affordability and how to make quality meat affordable.  One solution to the high price of meat, of course, lies in making vegetarian meals once or twice each week (or more.)  It’s no secret that beans are cheaper than meat, but they are also a good source of protein and substance, making them a good center-of-the-plate substitute.

Cooking Your Own Beans

Slow Cooker Beans

Hands-down, I recommend the slow cooker for cooking beans, like these pretty variegated beans from Monroe Organics. Be sure to save the juice for use like a broth (see suggestions in article.)

For even greater affordability, cook your own beans.  Then you can enjoy high-grade organic beans for just pennies per serving.  And it’s easy. Contact us for a reference sheet that you can keep handy in your cooking files.  Alternatively, check out a previous post on cooking beans, and one on an accelerated method.  I have found the slow cooker to be the best method for cooking dried beans; it eliminates many of the problems people associate with the operation.  And if time is an issue, here’s some good news.  Yesterday, I needed some beans quickly to take pictures for this series of blog posts, so I discovered an even faster, slow cooker method:

Super Accelerated Slow Cooker Beans–No Soaking Required

  • Step 1: Boil for 5 Minutes  (In a large saucepan, combine 1-2 cups dried beans  with about a quart of water.  Bring to a boil for cook for 5 minutes.)
  • Step 2:  Drain  (Drain beans into a colander–but save the juices for watering plants–then put drained beans into the slow cooker)
  • Step 3:  Boil More Water (Fill the large saucepan with another quart of water and bring to a boil)
  • Step 4:  Combine and Cook (Pour the boiling water over beans waiting in the slow cooker.  Cover and cook on HIGH heat until tender to your tastes–which can be a s little as 3 to 4 hours.  Keep an eye on them as they cook more quickly than expected.)
  • Step 5:  Add Salt (Wait until beans are cooked to the desired tenderness then stir in 1/4 to 1 tsp. good sea salt, to taste.)
  • Step 6:  Eat and Enjoy (Freshly cooked beans are good enough to serve as a side dish, on their own.)

Cooking Classes Using Beans

If you want to learn more about cooking with beans, check out our classes which very often include a bean dish or two.

Waste Not-Want Not:   Bean Juice

Speaking of affordability, there’s no need to throw out the liquid from cooking beans.  Maximize food dollars, flavor and nutrition:  Drain the juice into a jar.  Refrigerate and use for cooking rice, thinning soups, cooking harder vegetables, deglazing pans or anywhere else that you’d use a broth.  It keeps for several days, or freeze it in small portions for later use.

Note:  Higher quality beans will have better juice.  For instance, Eden Organic beans are cooked with kombu, a sea vegetable that adds nutrients and reduces or eliminates the need for salt.  Conversely, lower quality beans may be cooked with a lot of salt to mask a flavor deficit.  In all dishes where you add bean juice , but especially those with higher sodium juice, be sure to taste before adding more salt.

Convenience and Freezing

You certainly can’t beat beans’ convenience.  Just open a can and you’re ready to go!  “But what if I can’t eat the whole can?” you might be wondering.  Or what if you cook a batch of beans from scratch, which tends to make a lot!  No problem.  Beans store in the frig for several days and extras can also be frozen in single serving sizes.

Affordable Organics?

Learning to Double Your Vegetable Dollars Is the Secret

“I’d like to buy organic vegetables, but they’re so expensive.”  Ever catch yourself dreaming of more affordable organics?  Try this on for size:   What if, every time you purchased an organic vegetable, you actually got not just one but two or three vegetables?  No doubt that would make the  economic equation a lot more attractive.

Red Wagon Beets, Golden and Red

Red Wagon Beets, Golden and Red  (Picture Courtesy of Red Wagon)

Here’s how to make that his kind of magic happen:  Waste Not.  For example, in last week’s Farmers’ Market Excursion class, we made beet relish, using a gorgeous bunch of organic red and golden beets from Red Wagon Farm.  The bunch cost $4.00, but

  • we made enough relish for two meals,
  • the next day, the beet greens were the centerpiece for another meal, and
  • the following day the beet stems went into a lentil soup.

In other words, that’s four meals’ worth of vegetables for $4.00, or $1.00 per meal for amazingly delicious, don’t-harm-the-environment, don’t-harm-me, super-nutritious vegetables.

Beets with luch, full beet greens

People in my classes always exclaim, “You really don’t waste anything!” In our food culture which routinely wastes tons and tons of food, I guess my actions do seem odd: Retrieving kale stems when class members mistake them for compost, saving the ends of grated ginger root for tea, stuffing onion ends and skins into a bag to make my own (very cheap) broths. But maybe it’s time for the new, less-wasteful food culture that Every Day Good Eating is bringing about.  (Picture Courtesy of Red Wagon)

Bear in mind, too, that this was no ordinary bunch of limp beets with scraggly tops.  They were firm and dense, the tops lush and huge and the stems plentiful.  Every part of the beet was rich with flavor–leaving the taste buds completely satisfied and providing plenty of vegetable nutrition.  Could anyone really argue that  $1.00 per meal is “too expensive” for this caliber of vegetable?

“You get what you pay for” is a universal law.  Pay little and you get little.  Happily, it works the other way, too, however.  Pay a fair price and you get a fair–often more than fair–product.

Now that you know the magic that makes organic affordable, begin learning how to use all parts of a vegetable.  Join us for our last class on beet relish at Isabelle Farm on Thursday, July 26.  Then check out the next blog for a quick way to use beet greens.  For the stems, just saute and toss them into your favorite lentil soup (which could be a canned variety, too.)

Kitchen Essentials: The Humble Storage Container

Storage Containers

The humble storage container is a kitchen essential–even if it’s not as glamorous as some kitchen hardware.

Food storage containers don’t rank in the A-list of kitchen gadgets like sleek Kitchen Aid stand mixers and shiny All-Clad cookware.  In fact, a lot of us muddle by with a random assortment of  yogurt cups and take out tubs–with dozens of even more random lids that never seem to fit anything.  Hence this article.

If you are interested in meals with any of these attributes–healthy, efficient, affordable, stress-free and/or tasty–then you need decent storage containers.  The yogurt cups and take out tubs can (mostly) be recycled. So recycle them now and get a set of sturdy containers that will last for years.  The rewards are many:

  • Enjoy Efficiency:  Absolutely begin doubling the amount of pasta, sweet potatoes, potatoes, rice, chicken, etc., etc., that you cook.  Extras stored in good containers will last perfectly for days, giving a good head start on later meals.
  • Get Healthy:  The previous trick is especially helpful when it comes to vegetables.  As long as you’re set up for washing and chopping, cut and store extras (vegetables hold up quite nicely in tight-seal containers.)  Then see if you don’t find more vegetables weaving their way into your meals.
  • Save on Stress:  Square containers are the best because they stack conveniently and maximize space in the frig.  They leave the refrigerator organized, with everything easy to view and remove.
  • Save Money:  Americans pitch enormous amounts of food.  Instead of pitching, start capturing leftovers in convenient storage containers and see what affordable (and healthy) snacks and lunches they make.  Plus, when I finally started transporting our foods in actual containers, I no longer lost food that exploded and leaked from unreliable yogurt cups.
  • Please Your Kids:  Homemade lunches ensure that your kids’ mid-day meals are healthful.  Good storage containers ensure that lunch won’t be splattered all over their lunch boxes–and it minimizes waste.

No question about it, good storage containers are an essential.  But maybe you’re having a couple nagging questions:

  1. What about plastic containers–are they safe?  Valid concern, with all the press lately about the dangers of plastic.  This is my solution to date:  I use glass for storing hot leftovers and reheating in a microwave; tight-seal plastics for transporting foods and storing vegetables.
  2. How many containers do I need?  If you’re just starting out, 15-20 pieces is not too much, since some will always be in use in the frig and some will be in the wash cycle.  Should it prove too much, pass some along to a friend or child setting up house.  Alternatively, they can be used to store and organize an array of other household items, from batteries and crafting supplies to nails and sprinkler parts.

How to Make the Best Brown Rice . . .

. . .  and Be a Green Cook at the Same Time

A Bits and Pieces Cooking Tip: Use the cooking water from slow cooker beans to cook brown rice.  Earlier posts have described the benefits and how-tos for making slow cooker beans and how to accelerate the process if the slow cooker is too slow for your circumstances.  Now there’s another advantage to cooking beans this way.  The cooking water can be used to cook brown rice, making it really tasty.

  • This simple trick saves water, a good thing in an increasingly water-constrained world
  • It also saves nutrients.  No need to send them down the drain.
  • Finally it saves time and hassle.  Pour bean water into a quart jar, then store in the frig so it’s pre-measured and ready to go when you’re hurrying to get a pot of rice cooking.

The cooking water for this rice began by boiling some carrot and onion tops too tough to cook. Then some pork chop bones were added. The resulting broth was used to cook pasta, a "bits and pieces" cooking tip from Eugenia Bone. After cooking the pasta, I saved the water for one more use: cooking this rice, which came out almost like a risotto, since the cooking water was so rich by this time.

Pasta water works, too. Good chefs often use pasta water in their sauces with delicious results.

In the same way, cooking rice in leftover pasta water yields very delicious results.  Not surprisingly, the rice ends up tasting a lot like the pasta we all love.  Some tips:

  • When draining the pasta, I pour off the top portion, saving  just two quarts from the bottom of the pot, where all the pasta “dust” packed with pasta flavor settles.
  • If you salt your pasta water (which is a good idea) be sure to adjust the amount of salt you add to the rice before cooking.  In fact, you may not need any additional salt beyond what’s in the pasta water.  Taste a spoonful to see.
  • Gluten free?  No worries.  This trick works with brown rice pasta, too.

See how tempting whole grains can be!

Bits & Pieces Cooking: An Evening with Eugenia Bone

What Unbored Cooks Know that Bored Cooks Don’t:  Trash Can Be Treasure

More than helpful food preservation know-how turned up at a talk last week by Eugenia Bone, author of Well Preserved (Clarkson Potter 2009) and the Denver Post’s Well Preserved Blog.

I’m on a “travel quest” these days, not necessarily to faraway places, but simply to new places and/or new experiences.  So last week I traveled to Denver’s magical Botanic Gardens (all of 30 miles away.)  The Gardens alone were a treat (memo to file: when April’s dark days get me down I’m heading to the Gardens for a cheap tropical thrill.)  Better yet, however, was a lively talk by Eugenia Bone.

As Eugenia is a food preservation expert, I wasn’t surprised to reap a treasure trove of know-how on capturing the season’s bounty for the cold days of winter.  I was delightfully surprised, however, to learn how strategic food preservation can also be harnessed as a tool to beat boredom at the dinner table.

Long-time newsletter readers know that beating mealtime boredom is a common theme of mine–and for good reason:  Boredom is the #1 mealtime barrier for countless people.  Time after time, a well-intentioned home chef gets lured into dialing for takeout, just because she’s tired of making the same old thing!

That’s why I’m always on the hunt for boredom beating strategies, and Eugenia shared a good one.  Not surprisingly, it revolves food preservation, but not in the usual sense, i.e., Aunt Sue putting up 48 quarts of tomatoes to last until the next tomato harvest.  Eugenia’s definition of food preservation is far more liberal, encompassing a wide range of food combinations, preserved in many ways, for anywhere from a week to a year.

She might make a fresh mayonnaise and store for just a week, oil-preserved zucchini that can last two or three weeks, mushroom stock that can be frozen for months or a tomato chickpea side dish that is good for a year.  The key to her boredom beating strategy lies in using up whatever bits and pieces she finds around the kitchen, whipping up creative concoctions, then preserving them in small batches.  Then she’s perfectly situated for boredom-defying meals.

When dinnertime rolls around, she simply heads to her refrigerator, freezer and cupboard pantries and starts mixing and matching.  Here’s one of the many creative (but easy) meals she described:  Chicken breasts with a frozen wine reduction, complimented by the canned tomato-chickpea dish and maybe a simple green salad with fresh mayonnaise dressing.

Here’s the key takeaway:  Trash can be treasure. In other words, what un-bored home cooks know that bored cooks don’t, is that some of the best flavor in the kitchen comes from leftover bits and pieces that most people would pitch.  Use those bits and pieces immediately or go one step further by transforming them into creative preserved foods that add easy pizazz to later meals.

  • Happily, Eugenia brought up the wonders of leftover duck fat, so now I can safely mention how I use leftover bacon grease or lamb drippings (just a tablespoon!) to saute onions and other vegetables , imparting all sorts of delightful flavor for very little in the way of calories.
  • Two days ago, faced with a few strawberries and apricots on the verge of rotting, I took Eugenia’s advice and blended up a Fresh Fruit and Herb Salad Dressing (recipe in next post) that was so good, my mixed greens needed only a little canned chicken for a superb lunch.
  • The leftover broth from that canned chicken got cooked with a batch of sauteed tofu.   You wouldn’t have believed it was tofu!
  • A bit of leftover brine from feta cheese went into the garlicky zucchini and pulled the whole dish together–for no calories
  • This morning, more apricot puree got mixed with ginger, soy sauce and rice vinegar to top a fast stir-fry with greens from the garden.  (See my Vegetable Queen Twitter column for more fast ideas like these.)

But wait, there are more benefits of bits and pieces cooking!  Besides delivering really interesting meals, it saves money by  preventing waste and providing free flavor.  Saving tasty tidbits from landfills and garbage disposals also helps save the planet.  Finally, to the extent you preserve the local harvest, you can eat locally year round–as I’m going to do by saucing and canning the last few of my local apricots to make Apricot-Curry Dressing in the middle of winter.

Nurture Your Vegetables . . . So They Can Nurture You

Yesterday’s post reviewed the basics of vegetable storage.  Make sense of those rules by understanding how vegetables continue breathing, even after they’re cut or plucked from the earth.

We hear a lot about how vegetables nurture us.  But did you know that it works the other way, too?  Nurture vegetables and they can do a better job of nurturing and nourishing us.

Baby Spinach from Farmers Market

Baby Spinach from Farmers Market Don't let it from cannibalize itself!

This discovery came while researching how to store spinach.  It seemed like a pretty cut and dried topic until I ran across this statement, buried in some technical research document:  “Despite having been detached from the plant, fruits and vegetables remain as living organs after harvest.”

That statement took a minute to wrap my head around.  Subconsciously I’d always lumped vegetables with all the other inanimate objects in my shopping cart.  Being severed from the ground seemed like pretty good evidence that they were dead.  What’s more, in any megamarket vegetables are lined up for sale under bright fluorescent lights right alongside aisles of kid toys, lawn chairs, socks and razors.  So who would think of produce being in a class of its own, one of living organisms as opposed to inanimate objects?

Seeing vegetables in the light of the living put a whole new spin on the topic of storage.  All of a sudden, it didn’t seem quite right to just throw them in my shopping basket and then throw them in the frig at home.  My veggies deserve more.

So back to my technical article I went.  “Like all living tissues,” it continued, “harvested produce continues to respire throughout its postharvest life.”  So quite unlike all the other packaged, bottled and canned food in my shopping basket, the fresh vegetables are still breathing.

In the simplest of terms, vegetable breathing is a process where “oxygen is consumed and water, carbon dioxide, and energy are released.”  The point of this process is to break down carbohydrates into “their constituent parts to produce energy to run cellular processes.”

Here’s the kicker, though:  When we’re talking about harvested produce, the carbohydrates being broken down to run a plant’s cellular processes are its own carbohydrates! You could say that a harvested vegetable is essentially cannibalizing itself in a valiant attempt to remain as alive as it can be.   Hour by hour, day by day, with each breath, “compounds that affect plant flavor, sweetness, weight, turgor (water content), and nutritional value are lost.”

What does all this mean for ordinary vegetable shoppers? It means that to reap the amazing flavor and essential nutrients that vegetables offer, we must handle them as depleting assets.  In other words, our job as vegetable purchasers is one of emergency triage:  What can we do to staunch the flood of flavor, sweetness, water content and nutrients streaming from our carefully selected produce?

Buying at Farmers Markets is a good first step.  It automatically puts you ahead in the depleting assets game, since produce is generally harvested either the night before or morning of the market.  (Many thanks to the farmers who are up picking at 4:00 a.m. to get us the freshest produce possible.)  This means you have at least a two to three day flavor advantage over produce picked a thousand miles away, shipped to a warehouse, delivered to the grocery store, then displayed for a while in the produce aisle.

This kind of flavor and nutrition advantage is not something you want to squander:

  1. Get your produce home as quickly as possible (skip the temptation to run errands on the way home, especially as the weather turns hot.)
  2. On hot days, bring a cooler and icepack so your veggies can ride home in air conditioned comfort.  If you forget, buy something frozen (e.g., meat)  to pack with your most delicate greens and keep them in the shadiest part of the car.  Scrounge up a cardboard box and you’ll even get a little insulative benefit.
  3. Finally, once home,  get your veggies into plastic bags, close loosely and pop into the frig immediately.

How can such simple steps be so important?  Each helps slow the respiration process, either by chilling or limiting exposure to air, so your veggies don’t expire any more of their flavor and nutrition than they have to.  It’s easy to take our incredible produce for granted, but it deserves better!

Find out more about how to reap delicious delight from vegetables with Vegetable a Month online magazine.

The Cabbage Core Challenge

4 Tricks for Taking the Sting Out of Bitter Vegetables

There’s a reason grocery store displays of broccoli rabe, rutabagas and turnips go

Cabbage Core

Does my "waste not-want not" motto really extend to cabbage cores?

untouched for hours at a time.  Some members of the vegetable kingdom are just a little harder to like than others.  But we still want the flavor and nutrient diversity they offer.  Happily, there are ways of preparing these difficult specimens that make them more palatable.  Although the following article focuses on cabbage cores, a particularly challenging vegetable, its tricks can be used to form a good working relationship with any of the harsher vegetables.


Here’s an honest admission:  I have a “waste-not-want-not” thing going on. My Twitter column is filled with vegetable dishes fast enough for breakfast and lunch—a good many made with stems, stalks, cores and leaves that normal cooks would pitch.  But not me.  I have this thing about waste, so I set myself a personal goal of starving my compost pile as much as possible.

To date, things have been going pretty well.  I’ve been turning kale stems, cauliflower leaves, broccoli stalks and other such “refuse” into tasty dishes—boosting my vegetable intake and stretching my vegetable dollars.  But then came yesterday’s cabbage core.  Couldn’t I safely pitch that without violating my self-inflicted waste code?

Tasting a piece of it triggered deep, gastronomic memories of everything bad about cabbage.  I now knew why the cabbage itself was unbelievably sweet and light:  Every bit of the head’s strong, musky, sour and harsh taste had been sucked into the core!  And that foul taste is what I got upon testing a bite.

I immediately started to scrape the whole thing towards the compost bin.  Not until the last

Cabbage Core Headed to the Compost Bin

The compost bin got the moldy end of the core, but the rest got chopped for a higher purpose.

second did my better self rise to the occasion.  The compost bin got the moldy end of the core (I do have some limits!), but the rest got chopped as I decided how to transform it into something I could stomach.  Working with vegetable parts that are frequently discarded, I’ve learned a few tricks to render them not only palatable but pretty decent-tasting.  This core was about to be my biggest challenge to date.

Trick 1:  Cook It Cooking is the best way to extract the bitterness from a vegetable.  In this case, I didn’t even consider steaming or sauteing but went straight to boiling, which is the preferred cooking method for really tough vegetable characters.

I know that boiling has lost favor over the years, probably because we get vegetables shipped in year round that are tender enough for just a light steaming or sautéing, which is generally better taste wise and nutritionally.  But imagine a pioneer farm wife faced with some garden remnant in November—it may be tough and gnarly, but it’s the closest thing to fresh that she will have for four months.  She is going to make those stalks or stems taste good no matter what, and boiling is the tool for the job.

Note, however, that boiling isn’t limited to throwing vegetables in a huge pot of water, cooking the vegetables to death and then pitching the water.  On the contrary, I simmer rather than boil my vegetables in a tiny, not a potful, of liquid.  This means any leached out vitamins and minerals get concentrated in an amount of liquid small enough that it can be fully incorporated into the finished dish, minimizing nutrient and flavor loss.  Also, I only simmer until the vegetables have lost their bitter or harsh taste, which is often when they are still crisp-tender.  My cabbage core had to be cooked beyond crisp-tender, but still far short of mush, before losing its harsh taste.

Trick 2:  Inject Flavor While water certainly works as a cooking liquid, experiment with

Simmer in Imagine's Vegetable Broth

This broth has plenty of flavor, so little additional salt was needed.

different broths.  They can inject flavor into the spaces left by the extraction of the vegetable’s bitterness.  I used Imagine’s Vegetable Broth, which has plenty of flavor to spare.

Third:  Salt Salt is also good at both drawing out bitterness and imparting flavor.  Your broth might be salty enough as is, but if using a low-sodium variety or water, try adding a little (maybe 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp.) of good sea salt.  I used about 1/4 tsp. of Celtic salt in my simmer water.

Fourth:  Combine with Other Flavorful Ingredients.

I always say that sausage is a miracle ingredient.  Add just a little and the entire dish tastes great—no work, little cost and no cooking knowledge required.  Sausage was the primary tastemaker I added to my simmered cabbage core.

Sausage and Onion are Great Taste Makers

We just received a shipment of sausage from pasture-fed pigs. It I had no fat, so I had to add olive oil to saute the onion. Less than 1/4 lb. is all I needed for a great-flavored dish.

I also added sweetly browned onions and sweet snap pea shoots (I rescued a few from thegarden before last week’s snow.)  Their sweetness balanced the trace amounts of bitterness left in the cooked core pieces, as would other sweet vegetables (red peppers, corn, etc.) or sautéed fruits (like pears and apples), or just rice, chicken, tofu or some kind of sauce with a little sweetness.

The end result?  I think I met the challenge with a delicious for lunch that wasn’t just another sandwich–not by a long shot!

Cabbage Core with Sausage and Onions

For a little color, I added vivid green pea shoots at the end.

Don’t Pitch that Browned Rice

I’ll be the first to admit it:  I’ve “browned” a lot of rice.  In this case, “browning” is not like “browning chicken breasts until golden,” or “toasting nuts until brown and fragrant.”  No, browning rice means I forgot about the rice simmering on the stove so the stuff just kept simmering until a thick brown, hard crust formed on the bottom.

Fortunately, that brown crust emits a pretty fragrant smell, so I usually catch the rice before it burns completely, at which point the whole batch would have to be pitched.  As long as it’s only brown on the bottom, even a serious brown, the rice on top is fine.  Just scrape it off and enjoy.

As for the crust of hard browned rice on the bottom, I used to pitch it.  Until now.  Quite by accident (the way a lot of good cooking secrets are uncovered), I found a delicious use for it:  After scooping away the good rice from yet another browned batch, I poured in a cup or two of water to help loosen the bottom crust.  Since I forgot to turn off the burner, the mixture continued cooking.  Lo and behold, when I checked back in a few minutes, the hard browned rice had fluffed up and the intense browned flavor had been diluted and evenly dissipated by the water.  Always game for a new flavor, I tried a bite and it was quite good!  So the whole batch got thrown into a pot vegetable soup for an interesting flavor enhancer.

Yesterday, I went one step further.  Faced with yet another hard brown rice crust, I simmered it in a couple cups of chicken broth instead of just plain water.  Then I added diced kohlrabi stems and, after they had simmered a bit, chopped kohlrabi greens.  Salt and pepper were the only seasonings necessary for a delicious lunchtime soup.  Apparently, browned rice has a lot of flavor.

Here’s an even better ending to the story:  You’ve heard of self-cleaning ovens.  Cooking browned-on rice self-cleans your rice pan.  Just be sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the pan as the soup boils–which you’ll want to do anyway to scrape in all that flavor.

Of course, I’m just waiting for the comment from some clever reader who never browns (or burns) her rice because she uses a rice cooker.  Go ahead and advise me that I need to get a rice cooker–but you’ll never get to taste Browned Rice Soup!

(P.S. for kohlrabi, you can substitute the stems and leaves of any green, like kale, chard, collards, beets or even just spinach; just adjust the cooking time up or down depending upon the tenderness or toughness of your greens.)

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